A career in Roman art tangled in Italian law

Times Staff Writer

Ordinary curators spend their careers in the shadows of museums, caring for collections and emerging only with news of special acquisitions or exhibitions.

Marion True, curator of antiquities and trust coordinator of Villa programs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is not an ordinary curator. A Harvard University-educated scholar who occupies a hot seat at the famously wealthy institution, she has picked her way through a minefield of cultural heritage issues for 23 years while building the most controversial component of the Getty's collection: a 50,000-piece holding of objects from Greece, Rome and Etruria. She also has become a leader in a field fraught with conflict over the ethics and legalities of collecting ancient art, often speaking out in professional forums, the popular press and court proceedings.

Approached in 1988 by an American dealer attempting to sell Byzantine mosaics stolen from Cyprus by the Turks in the mid-1970s, True notified authorities in Cyprus and testified on their behalf in a 1989 case that returned the artworks to their country of origin. At a public meeting of the U.S. State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee in 1999, she supported Italy's request for a five-year ban on the U.S. importation of a wide range of Italian antiquities, which went into effect in 2001.

"I think she is very well-regarded," said Nancy Thomas, curator of ancient art and deputy director of art administration and collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "With her scholarly background and decades of work, she has contributed significantly to the field, including hosting numerous symposia at the Getty on topics ranging from Egyptian bronzes to the reconstruction of classical sculpture. That's something we have all benefited from as we have watched her career develop."

But nothing has prepared True for the challenge facing her now. In a case that attorneys and True's colleagues say is highly unusual, if not unique, she has been indicted in Italy on criminal charges involving the acquisition of antiquities. The trial -- at which she is not required to appear -- is scheduled to begin July 18. True, 56, is accused of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen goods and illicit receipt of archeological objects. The indictment also alleges that she in effect laundered artworks through a private collection to create a phony paper trail of their provenance.

True and Getty officials declined to comment on the case or contribute to this story. The Getty has defended True throughout the legal battle, which has played out over the last 10 years. When the Italians recently announced that the case would go to trial, the Getty issued a statement expressing disappointment about the decision and confidence that True would be exonerated.

Among about 40 Getty objects at issue are two large Greek statues of female deities carved in stone. One work is a 7 1/2 -foot sculpture of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, that's among the most rare and costly pieces in the collection, valued at $20 million in 1987 when it cleared U.S. customs. The other is a 33-inch figure of Tyche, the goddess of fortune, from the collection of New York patrons Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, acquired by the Getty in 1996 as part gift, part purchase.

Details of the indictment -- including a list of the objects in question -- and the penalty to be sought have yet to be disclosed. But Italian authorities say that the case is intended to send a message: Italy is clamping down on illegal excavation and exportation of ancient art by stamping out the market for it.

The trial may or may not have the desired result for Italian prosecutors, but the protracted legal imbroglio and impending court proceedings have already sent a warning to antiquities curators worldwide.

"I am very concerned about this case," Thomas said.

In pursuing True, the Italians also have made an example of a high-profile professional who probably never imagined that her career in art would lead to an indictment in Italy.

True, who was born in Tahlequah, Okla., in 1948, graduated from New York University in 1970 with honors in classics and fine arts and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Two years later she completed a master's in classical archeology at NYU. She spent the next decade on the East Coast doing curatorial work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, teaching at Harvard and working in commercial galleries.

True joined the Getty's staff in 1982 as an assistant to antiquities curator Jiri Frel, who was hired in 1973 by the museum's founder, oil baron J. Paul Getty. Frel expanded the collection enormously but was forced to retire in 1984 after disclosures that he had traded inflated appraisals for donated antiquities. True became associate curator upon Frel's departure and took charge of the antiquities department in 1986, the year she received her doctorate from Harvard with a thesis on ancient Greek red-figure vases.

Like other museums with collections of ancient art -- including such venerable institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London -- the Getty has come under fire for acquiring works said to be fakes, copies or illegal imports. During True's tenure, the relatively young Los Angeles museum has investigated questionable pieces and relinquished a few of them.

In 1988, True concluded that a marble "Head of Achilles" acquired during Frel's leadership as a 4th century BC work by Greek sculptor Skopas was probably created in the 20th century. The same year, when the Getty unveiled the Aphrodite sculpture now at issue, a controversy erupted over claims that it had been illegally excavated. No evidence materialized, and it isn't clear if new information will be produced in the trial.

The Getty's kouros, a statue of a Greek young man acquired in 1985, also has been troublesome. In 1990, the museum undertook an extensive public study to consider challenges to its authenticity. Results were inconclusive, with supporters contending that the figure is a genuine 6th century BC sculpture and detractors dismissing it as a modern copy.

In another highly publicized move, the Getty in early 1999 returned to Italy three works: a 480 BC Greek terra cotta drinking cup that was illegally excavated; a 2nd century torso of the god Mithra stolen from a private Italian collection; and a 2nd century Roman head of an athlete illicitly taken from an excavation storeroom.

"True inherited a lot of problems," said Steven E. Thomas, an attorney at the Los Angeles firm Irell & Manella who teaches art law at UCLA. "The interesting thing about this case is that the Getty can at least say, 'We have given stuff back.' And in 1995, while True was curator of antiquities, they were one of the first museums setting out a new strict policy for acquisitions of antiquities requiring documented provenance. Other museums have jumped on board, but the Getty was definitely one of the early ones to do that.

"When Italy requested import restrictions on a variety of antiquities that were likely to have come from Italy and ancient Rome," he added, "True was the only museum curator who spoke up and said: 'I support this, on behalf of the museum. We should permit some restrictions. We should require provenance. We should require background information.' You can certainly hold her to a different standard and say she falls short, but relative to what others have done, she has a good track record."

In a 1999 press release announcing the Getty's plan to return artworks to Italy, True stated: "Our antiquities collecting policy calls for our prompt return of objects to their country of origin should information come to light that convinces us that this is the appropriate action to take."

Emphasizing that the Getty had acted on its own initiative, she added, "We are proud of the relationship we have built with the Italian Ministry over the years."

That relationship appears to have crumbled, but the extent of the damage remains to be seen.

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